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  • Caught Up in the Whirlwind: Ruth Baldwin
  • Rita J. Smith (bio)

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Figure 1.

From one of over 300 versions of Robinson Crusoe held in the Baldwin Library (colored frontispiece). This adaptation of the novel was published by McLoughlin Brothers, New York, in 1882.

I first met Ruth Baldwin briefly in 1977 when I worked for a year in the Acquisitions Department of the University of Florida Library. I met her a second time one Saturday when I had a garage sale, and she stopped in for about thirty seconds to look through my box of children’s books. I met her a third time when I went looking for a job at the University of Florida Library. Because her staff person was retiring, I was sent to Ruth Baldwin. I walked over to the Baldwin Library unannounced, introduced myself, and said I was looking for a job. I knew very little about her. She was a stocky woman of medium height, seventy years old with steely gray hair, a wide forehead, a solid stance, and a determined set to her mouth. She sized me up and during the next hour proceeded to show me part of her collection of children’s books: pop-ups and transformations from the nineteenth century, shelves of books by G. A. Henty, an entire cabinet of hundreds of chapbooks, complete runs of nineteenth-century children’s periodicals, and a book of children’s stories with original woodcuts by Alexander Anderson. This tour was accompanied by a recitation of her problems since bringing the collection to the University of Florida, a recitation spiked with a dry, sardonic sense of humor and punctuated by short bursts of laughter. The position was just what I didn’t want: full-time, permanent, and nonprofessional, but I was awed by the collection and intrigued by Baldwin. I took the job when it was offered to me.

Baldwin, collector and curator of the historical children’s literature collection at the University of Florida, had given her private collection of 35,000 nineteenth-century American and British children’s books to the University of Florida in 1977. In the following twelve years, she had added 50,000 nineteenth- and twentieth-century volumes, bringing the total volumes to approximately 90,000. Although it was now housed in a public university, she still saw it as her collection and was fiercely [End Page 289] protective of it. By the late 1980s, Baldwin had officially retired from the library, but she still came in every day, cataloging, assisting scholars, and ordering books. The library was her legacy, and building the collection was a twenty-six year endeavor that dominated Baldwin’s daily life. Over the years she did do other things. She hiked, sewed, wrote letters, traveled, gardened, kept a house and car in repair, and she had a day job, but collecting children’s books became her passion, the joy and burden of the last third of her life.

Baldwin was born on September 29, 1918 on a farm outside of Due West, South Carolina. After several brief stays in small college towns, the family settled in Urbana, Illinois where her father, Professor Thomas Baldwin, had accepted a faculty position in the English department at the University of Illinois. She grew up in Urbana along with her two younger sisters. After high school, she attended Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, and received a bachelor’s degree in 1939. Over the next fifteen years she attended the University of Illinois between jobs to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and finally, in December 1955, her doctorate in Library Science. In January 1956, Louisiana State University hired her as a faculty member of the School of Library Science. She taught there for twenty-one years, not children’s or young adult literature, however, as one might expect, but library management.

Baldwin began collecting things as a child. One dresser in the attic of the Baldwin house in Urbana was labeled “Ruth’s Museum,” and it held great treasures including arrowheads, rattlesnake rattles, rocks, shells, seeds, and nuts. When the seeds and nuts produced worms that invaded...

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